According to the popular and often-used 1880 history of Nevada County “History of Nevada County California,” James W. Marshall, the man credited with the event that started the California Gold Rush (by finding gold in Coloma on Jan. 24, 1848), was said to have passed through Nevada County in the summer of 1848.
The history claims that Marshall “… conducted a train of immigrants. He (Marshall) says that he camped overnight on Deer Creek near the site of Nevada City, and panned out some dirt, securing gold and convincing himself that there were paying diggins in this locality.” The text gives the impression that the information came from interviewing Marshall, but there is no citation given.
Other histories written about the county regarding the early years do not mention Marshall, but omission does not necessarily make it untrue.
Yet, it is unlikely that the writers of the above-published 1880 history actually interviewed Marshall. (See The Union’s history page, Nov. 16, on the reliability of county histories and similar, so-called “mug books.”)
We know for sure from local newspaper accounts that Marshall did visit and make a public appearance in both Grass Valley and Nevada City. It was April of 1870, and Marshall was just beginning a lecture tour around the state to tell the story of his early life and his part in the event that triggered the largest gold rush in history.
By 1870, Marshall was said to be old, feeble and poor, (he was 60), and needed to do “something besides manual labor.” Although the Legislature had appropriated the sum of $100 per month for the pioneer, then Gov. Henry H. Height failed to sign the bill.
The lecture tour began in Grass Valley because it was considered the principal mining town of the state.
After this first lecture, which was held in Hamilton Hall, The Union reported, “he makes no pretensions of the use of set phrases of speech that his effort should not be criticized. … Since it was his first effort before an audience.”
Although The Union reported that his story was “interesting,” attendance was small. This may have been because the topic was gold. Marshall was not currently successful or prosperous and would not have been able to tell the audience anything they didn’t already know.
There probably was not a person in the county who at that time did not have a direct interest or a family member engaged in mining. Nevada County lived and breathed mining.
In 1850, when gold-bearing quartz was found at Gold Hill in Grass Valley, it led to the great underground mines that would continue for more than 100 years. Hydraulic mining was started at American Hill in Nevada City in 1852, as well as nearby Yankee Jims in Placer County. Miners would continue to pan throughout the county wherever there was a creek, stream or river, hoping to find gold.
In addition, audiences of the day expected to be either entertained or to learn something new from a lecture.
The American lyceum movement – started in Massachusetts in 1826, for the purpose of self-improvement through lectures and discussions on literary, scientific and moral topics by noteworthy scholar-lecturers, writers and preachers – had spread across the nation.
The same week that Marshall spoke in Grass Valley, another lecture at Hamilton Hall was given to the largest audience ever assembled there to hear a Dr. Simms.
It was the third lecture in his series and it was reported: “The audience listened with undivided attention during the entire evening, thereby giving the most conclusive evidence that the lecture was full of interest … The doctor is a powerful speaker and diverting his language of all imposing pomp of paradox…”
It was the day after Marshall spoke at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, his second lecture in the county, that the April 21, 1870 edition of the Nevada Daily Transcript reported that Marshall claimed he had escorted a party of emigrants to this state and washed out some gravel on the banks of Little Deer Creek, in June 1848, camping about one mile above town.
It is curious that Marshall did not mention this important fact the night before to the audience in Grass Valley. This makes one wonder if his sponsor encouraged him in some respect to make his lecture more interesting with a local connection, in order to draw a larger audience.
Simms’ name is long forgotten, but Marshall’s story is published in every book and article about the gold rush. Schoolchildren continue to learn about the important part Marshall played in California history.
Maria Brower is a member of the Nevada County Historical Society and works at the Doris Foley Library for Historical Research in Nevada City. The NCHS normally meets on the last Thursday of each month at the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad and Transportation Museum. There will be no December general meeting. The January meeting will be Jan. 30 at 7 p.m., and local historian and author Hank Meals will be the speaker.
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